Kotaro Lives Alone: Trauma and Stories

Trigger Warning: Whatever I write on this show now will be based on my own experiences with children from abusive backgrounds or some other personal experiences and what I found resonating with those in the series Kotaro Lives Alone so please skip this if those themes may be triggering. Also, heavy spoilers.

Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist but I’ve done things which put me around kids like this for a while. When I watched this series, I found a lot of it hit home with that. Also, resonance from years of experience with a very, very close friend who had a similar journey through childhood abuse and neglect. There were some things from personal experiences too, especially what is covered in this particular article. I’ll write from that mixed informal lens and nothing else so if you read, please do it with that disclaimer in mind. That’s why I’m not even referencing any formal papers or books on this topic because you can google them. This is just experience-sharing in case anyone is interested in it.

Why the depiction of abuse and trauma feels unique in Kotaro Lives Alone

While childhood trauma may be mentioned liberally in heroic action anime to provide compelling character backstories, rarely does something sit down with it in such a simple setting and actually look at how it may play out in the lives of everyday individuals. I’ve not seen it done like this in anime at-least. It was cathartic for me to watch and my friend with the history of abuse had the same experience watching it. We both felt that the biggest reason behind our feeling this way was probably the fact that most often child abuse goes unacknowledged or a victim may be so gaslit they refuse to admit to themselves what they experienced was in fact abuse so watching media which goes into it like this, acknowledging it from all subtle lenses, showing “normal people” coping with it, can be both relatable and validating for someone who has experienced it whether first-hand or indirectly.

This show also made a space with me because it reminded me of two different personal pieces I wrote here sometime back. One was Stories of Significance on how sometimes a work of fiction can help you find something to relate to when there is nothing left in your own life and reality to anchor you. The other was Kindness of Strangers, basically found families who support you when you need it most, so I decided to also build in some of those themes as I write. This one is of course, around the stories as a coping mechanism bit which is tied in with my own similar experience. I will do one or two more on my wider experiences through others as I find headspace for them since these are dense to write.

Story of Significance: Kotaro and Tonosaman

In my watch of the first episode, due to Kotaro talking about enemies and battle, I was wondering if this was going to be a sci fi or fantasy show where Kotaro would turn out to be an alien or some mystical creature who had battled demons in some faraway world. But as I watched a much sadder reality emerged of the demons Kotao is fighting being those of his own life, basically neglect and emotional abuse at the hands of his own parents.

In the first episode, Kotaro shows up to Shin’s house to watch his favourite show Tonosaman claiming his television will be delivered the next day but we see in a later shot that he already has a TV. This spills over into the next episode as well where he shows up again and Shin notes the show is terrible. However, Kotaro repeats each dialogue said by Tonosaman and seems to have picked up all his formal mannerisms, style of speaking, and identification as a feudal lord from there. Kotaro eventually admits to Shin that he knows the story is not great and he doesn’t watch it because he likes the character. There’s a child his own age throwing a tantrum in front of them whom he goes and counsels, commenting later to Shin that this child will be fine because he will not need to seek guidance from a TV show in the middle of the night and that’s when you finally realise why he has picked up his entire personality from Tonosaman.

However, in the next scene he also tries to brush away his dependence on the show by claiming to Shin that he has grown into an exceptional adult and therefore does not need guidance from a show any longer. He does but him admitting his dependence on Tonosaman to Shin is a vulnerable moment of weakness for him. This is a child for whom such moments have probably not been a reality, for whom being vulnerable or weak may have meant the difference between surviving and not surviving, and hence he immediately feels the need to disown his dependence and hide himself away again. We are also shown a very poignant sequence where Kotaro sits with a board “selling” his Tonosaman impression to people but paying 10 Yen each to them instead, only to the ones who smiled, since their smiles remind him of his mother (who otherwise was revulsed by him to the point that she used gloves to touch him) smiling at the same act of his.

This is when it begins to solidify as the story of a boy who has adopted the persona of a superhero to fight his own reality. We are later shown that his mother could not stand to be around him and was neglectful while his father likely went down a wrong path and also had anger issues. With adults like this who are unable to give him the care and protection he requires, he builds Tonosaman as the role model he never had, a character who is seen again and again protecting a child in trouble. However, Kotaro does not identify with the child but rather models himself on the individual strong enough to fight the child’s battles for him, essentially trying to become his own guardian, parent, and protector in the absence of one in his life. He also uses the story to cope with the absence of his parents, pretending they are ninjas and using that cover to convince his classmates why they don’t live with him or do not show up for any of his school events. Having nothing else to relate to, he latches on to this one very terrible story because it shows the things which resonate with his reality.

What I was writing about in Stories of Significance was exactly this. The story I wrote about there is world-renowned and a fan-favourite but honestly when I look at it, it’s not even my favourite anime and I do not look up to its characters even one tiny bit. They are not people you are supposed to aspire to be. But it was significant to me when I first saw it as a teen because I needed something like that to be able to relate to at that point. These were people who found themselves in circumstances they did not want to be in and had not planned to be in. It’s the course their life took and the actions of people who did not hold up their end of the bargain brought them all into the highly destructive and sad circumstances they were in.

Given my particular circumstances, I could find resonance with them. They felt like my friends. I could not relate to anyone else at-all, people my age or within my circle of existence, at that time because their lives were so different from mine right then. But this messed up crew of misfits felt like a space of belonging which temporarily coasted me through till I could find other anchors. I did not grow up to be an adult like them, quite the opposite rather, but for that moment in time they helped me find a sense of belonging. For Kotaro also this story is a temporary solace which, as he finds people in his life who genuinely care about him, he may eventually abandon it but it helped him get through the worst parts of his life and that’s why it is significant.

Quick Note: I also want to call out here that humans have used stories as entertainment and forms of escapism for a long time. Could be in the form of a series, movies, video games, role play whatever. These are always great to indulge in as long as you don’t take it too far and begin to identify as or model your life on fictional characters. What’s written here is specifically from the context of using stories to deal with trauma temporarily and then moving on from them. I do not condone unhealthy obsession with fictional characters.

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Recommended Watch: Review of Kotaro Lives Alone

Spoilers avoided. I finished my blind watch of Kotaro Lives Alone (you can read about the first impressions from that here in case you would like to) and now I want to do a more detailed piece separately on its core theme since it is extremely close to me but that will be spoilers galore so here is a quick final review. I’ve only seen the anime (which is only one season right now) though I plan to read the manga now, so this will be limited to the former.

Kotaro Lives Alone is a slice of life story with a child as a protagonist but it’s Seinen and therefore meant for adults. I feel it serves two purposes largely, the first being to provide a view into what abuse and neglect may look like in a child and second being almost a cathartic medium for any adult who was once an abused child to acknowledge the wrong done to them and maybe try to move on. I have experience with children from abusive backgrounds so when I talk about that below I’m doing it basis that.

What Doesn’t Work

  • It starts off strong with the first episode really catching your curiosity but somewhere in the middle the story tends to get a bit repetitive, somewhat slow, and loose in execution at-times though the season has a fairly impactful last episode
  • While the dynamic of Kotaro and Shin is developed fairly well, the secondary characters are often wasted and I would have been ok with fewer of those with more time spent with each
  • Considering the theme it deals with, it tends to get a bit too fairies and wonderland at-times which takes away its credibility but it does manage to salvage it by tying back to the core theme eventually. But personally, I would have preferred more seriousness considering this isn’t targeted at children.

The Win of Kotaro Lives Alone (what works well)

For me, what trumps everything that Kotaro Lives Alone gets wrong is a very astute and poignant understanding of the psyche, traits, and experiences of an abused or neglected child. I don’t know if the mangaka based this on personal experience but you cannot create a story like this unless you have seen this up-close whether in your own life or the life of someone close to you. It hits you again and again and how. Abuse doesn’t leave one impact and the effects can manifest in many different ways long after it’s no longer happening. Kotaro Lives Alone goes into so many of these impacts with a lot of respect and understanding of them that I’m ok ignoring the rest.

The story packages this understanding into bite-sized morsels which evolve from fairly innocuous everyday things and then morph into an insight into some aspect of the impact of childhood trauma which even someone who fortunately did not have to go through it can most likely understand. I always tend to place a bit of hope in such media (I like being optimistic ok?) to create a wider awareness in people about signs of abuse to watch out for in children since the series is actually often quite accurate in the gist of the message and seems to put in earnest effort into building that understanding. Watch it for the beautiful relationship which develops between the two protagonists Kotaro and Shin and Kotaro’s other little friendships. Overall, if you enjoy sensitive and emotional stories and would not get triggered by references to childhood abuse, I’d recommend this one.

Other articles on the show

Kotaro Lives Alone: Blind Watch Ep. 1 (No Spoilers)
Kotaro Lives Alone: Trauma and Stories (Spoilers)